Surprising facts about belly dancing

Holly Johnson

Photo By David Robert

Holly Johnson is a long-time member and recently elected president of the Asha Belly Dancers, whose next performance will be at the Dance for Life benefit show at the Green Room, 9 p.m. May 28. For a complete schedule, visit

I noticed that some Asha dancers actually have bellies. Do American belly dancers hold a particular body-image philosophy?

Regarding our philosophy on it, first of all the origin of belly dancing is women dancing for women and to women, and men were not allowed in the whole dance-party atmosphere of the women. The women would be out menstruating in huts, or going through labor pains or whatever. And they would dance and have the girl-bonding. So it is about all kinds of body types.

The American belly dancing is really sexualized belly dancing, and that’s not what the origins of it are all about. The first belly dancers came from the East and were in Seattle at the World’s Fair at the turn of the [20th] century, and from there the American burlesque and cabaret industry really was inspired by that kind of dance, and they incorporated it into the burlesque numbers. So that was how the whole cabaret, glitzy, that whole Las-Vegas-showgirl look came from. That’s what American belly dancing is. It’s far away from the Middle Eastern tribal origins of it.

So Asha is more into the traditional dancing?

Yeah, Asha is more into the tribal, folkloric, celebratory dances. Really they would dance for marriage, birth, death, and celebrations about rights of passage, change of the seasons, anything like that.

How’d the non-burlesque belly dancing make its way to Reno?

What happened was, as dancers started studying the history of dances, they’d go back to Africa and to the Middle East, to the villages there, and see how Middle Easterners and Africans were really performing it, and how Westerners tweaked it and twisted it. Then … in Egypt and Turkey, especially in the larger cities, they, of course, liked what Westerners had done to the tribal. They liked the glitz and the glam, and the burlesque part. So if you go to a bar in Turkey or Egypt, you will see a cabaret-style belly dancer, but if you’re out in the nomadic communities, then it’s more like women at the hut, men at the campfire.

On your Web site, I read “belly dancers are strong, determined women and men.” Men?

Yeah. Oh, yeah. The dance moves in, like, the African and nomadic Middle Eastern communities—the men’s moves have to do more with hunting and warrior-type moves. So they’re more athletic, and a lot of the imagery is around hunting and gathering.

Are any men belly dancing locally?

There are lot of men that are dancers in the Western hemisphere. It’s amazing because the whole drag-queen/gender-bender thing … a lot of the best-dressed ones [at festivals] are the drag queens. They’re in their costumes all day, and they’re the glitziest and the most polished. And they’ve actually got the moves down. I see a lot of men and a lot of transgender, you know, the drag queens. … They actually do it very well.

Where would someone go to learn belly dancing?

There are some great teachers here. The Asha choreographer teaches at TMCC on Friday nights; that’s an ongoing class through the Community Service Department. Her name is Christine Carver, and she’s excellent.

After your first belly dancing class, exactly which muscles will be sore?

Mostly the hips and the thighs. [A lot of the time] we’re in almost squat positions, and the knees are really bent, so it’s a lot of the thigh and butt muscles.

How much fun is belly dancing?

It’s a blast.